Leave No Trace ★★★★½

Reviewed for Monster Lookout:

I'd heard mixed early buzz about Debra Granik's followup fiction feature to Winter's Bone (she also directed a documentary in the interim). I can see why: I absolutely loved this film, but it is, despite superficial similarities, very different from its predecessor. Whereas Winter's Bone is fundamentally a thriller, Leave No Trace is a mix of superb character-driven drama and documentary-esque observation. (So strong is the casting and the naturalism, I often couldn't tell who were real people playing themselves onscreen and who are actors.) The setup is simple: a father and daughter have been living alone for some time in the woods, are eventually found, and the authorities attempt to reintegrate them into society. This could be played for Ken Loach-style social drama, but instead, every character in this film is fundamentally trying to do their best. The drama doesn't come from good versus evil - except perhaps on an existential scale - but different conceptions of what "trying to do good" means. Everything you've heard about New Zealander Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie's breakout role in the lead is true, and Ben Foster is equally good, but this isn't built to be an actor's showpiece. It's simply a truthfully-acted, fantastically observed portrait of a corner of America often caricatured, but observed with integrity and compassion without ever diving into pathos or forced statements.

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